Amicus Briefs and International Law in US Courts

Further to Orin’s brief post on Richard Fallon’s splendid essay about amicus briefs by law professors with a longer comment about the special role they play in international law cases in US courts, such as the upcoming Alien Tort Statute case in the Supreme Court.

I’ve drafted some amicus briefs in international law cases in US courts and I’ve signed bunches more. But I’ve always had a nagging concern about why a court should take seriously what I have to say on account of being a professor – a professor with an agenda. I understand that having an agenda is otherwise known as “writing a brief,” and I also understand that the literal notion of an amicus as a genuinely neutral “friend of the court” has long since been extinguished. I am not a litigator by trade, and have always treated my own contribution to amicus briefs as strictly substance in areas in which I believe I am expert. I have had long suppressed questions about why courts should accept these briefs at all, given that they seem to me – my amicus briefs and everyone else’s – just advocacy leveraged by quite specious claims of “neutral” expertise. Meaning by “specious” – the expertise is real, the neutrality is not.

So litigation is a mysterious realm to me and, to be perfectly frank, as a transactional lawyer who can’t imagine litigating, and despite my belief in the adversarial advocacy process, when I’ve been a personal participant, I find briefs to be a species of writing entirely too close to, well, lying. I don’t mean that in a bad way, of course; that’s an aesthetic judgment rather than a moral one, because I do believe in the adversarial process. I suppose that in making my own peace with amicus practice, I’ve essentially told myself, well, “Markets in everything. Courts know perfectly well that amicus are not neutral friends of the court and will discount accordingly.”  The concerns raised in this article are, as with everything Richard Fallon writes, exquisitely crafted, careful, nuanced, and sensitive from inside the profession and inside the professional role. It is skepticism from inside, and gains a great deal of intellectual power from this positioning, especially concerning something that has received very little attention. This is an essay in the sociology of the profession, but one that comes from inside out. My own concerns here are much more external. But I fully share the view that this is “an overdue discussion.”

The reason I raise this beyond what Professor Fallon says, however, is that particularly with the Supreme Court having accepted an Alien Tort Statute case presenting enormously important substantive issues, we international law professors are busy already sorting ourselves into encampments of amicus brief writers, with some leaders coordinating the troops on each side. The issues are important and the stakes in this ATS litigation large; these are worldly issues. But the problems of informing the Court on international law issues present much graver dangers of expertise and neutrality than is the case for the kinds of domestic law issues that this essay grapples with. We presume to instruct US domestic courts on “international law,” on issues in which fragmentation is the norm.

I frankly wouldn’t know, if I were a court, how to cut through the web of quite contradictory assertions that international law scholars make when we get into litigation, without cavil or hesitation or any suggestion that anyone might plausibly go the other way. And particularly so as American lawyers, trained in the litigation practice of never conceding anything, never expressing anything other than robust confidence in one’s own position, and seeing that as what an advocate is supposed to do. I said it’s an aesthetic judgment, not a moral one, this practice of utter certainty of belief about stuff that, whether one likes it or not, just is contested – but did I mention “lying”?

I have always thought it better to acknowledge the weaknesses of one’s position, the views on the other side, and address them, and if necessary – as I think it the case in “international law,” at least on the issues addressed in these kinds of cases – assert plausibility, greater and lesser plausibility, rather than certainty. I have yet to find an experienced litigator in an ATS case who thought that was a good idea – and that primarily, if I were to be blunt about what was actually meant, because the court would not be experienced enough at international law necessarily to know that the asserted certainty was misplaced. So much for the “markets in everything” – did I mention “information asymmetry” and “agent-principal failure”?

The asymmetry here is of a special kind, however – not strictly about the content of international law, but instead as to the certainty one ought to have in a particular view as to that content. We want it both ways as scholars; the ability to obfuscate as a pure advocate, and the ability to market ourselves not merely as neutral but, in the literal sense of friend of the court, an agent of a principal, a claim of trust or, anyway, “Trust me – I’m an expert!”

Of course, courts are rightly skeptical of international law scholars these days, and probably don’t see us as much other than baroque ornamentation for an opinion, a scholarly accouterment. I suggested to an ATS defense-side lawyer recently that the proper way to open an ATS amicus brief was with a frank statement that the court should pay no attention to any of the scholars, but if it was going to pay attention, it might as well read this one. The response was that this was probably unnecessary, as the court already had this view. And added that the real reason for these briefs was to try and get famous professors’ names in front of the judge’s clerks, who might be much more impressed and flattered – and, delicately and indirectly, did I know any?  (This Goldsmith fellow, perhaps, or Professor Chesney? [joke! – ed.])  You can understand why I am not a litigator.

I will, I’m sure, participate in some fashion in our upcoming War of the Roses. I, like many international law scholars, will march off to battles of flower-and-song with some congenial group of scholar-warriors, and huddle around campfires late at night to sharpen our submissions before going the next morning to blow our scholarly trumpets and engage in scholar-advocate combat. But amicus practice by law professors has a lot more ethical depth to it than we ordinarily acknowledge, and I’d commend this article to you, and think that in international law in particular we ought to talk quite a lot more about what this means, especially for my field when it shows up in US courts.

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